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Now Jamaica


Seven years ago, the voters of this country handed Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves his biggest political defeat when they rejected his “root and branch” attempt at constitutional reform in the referendum of November 2009. Considered in retrospect to be ahead of its time, the wholesale constitutional reform package, in essence a virtually new Constitution, was thrown out in what was one of the most backward political campaigns since Adult Suffrage.{{more}}

Across the region, the event of November 2009 has had the effect of stalling many other experiments in constitutional reform, even though none of them has been as all-encompassing as that defeated in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Whether it is St Lucia, St Kitts/Nevis, Barbados or Trinidad and Tobago, no government has yet tried to test the constitutional reform waters, either in Parliament or in a plebiscite.

Grenada, where far less ambitious reform is proposed, is the only other one where a referendum has been put on the agenda, but in spite of the complete dominance in Parliament by the government of Dr Keith Mitchell, even he has still been cautious in courting public support.

Now, out of the blue from unexpected quarters comes pronouncements of bold constitutional reform. It has come from the newly-elected Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) government. That party has historically been a bastion of conservative politics in the region. It is the JLP which championed and led the withdrawal from the ill-fated West Indies Federation of 1958/62. A half a century and more later, the JLP has stubbornly refused to lend its support to Jamaica fully embracing the move to get rid of Britain’s Privy Council as the final court of arbitration.

But last Thursday, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, heralded the impending redundancy of that position when he announced a planned sweeping number of constitutional reforms proposed by the new JLP administration.

In delivering the Throne Speech, Sir Patrick put forward a package of constitutional reforms proposed by the government. These include:
  • Jamaica to remove Britain’s Queen Elizabeth as Head of State, to be replaced in a republic by a non-executive president.
  • Fixed election dates, as obtains in the USA, and limited term limits for a prime minister.
  • The institution of an Integrity Commission.
  • The introduction of legislation to allow impeachment proceedings against corrupt parliamentarians and public officials.
  • The full legalization of marijuana “for specified purposes”.

This announcement has caused quite a stir in the region, both on account of the scope of the reforms proposed, as well as the source of origin. It is yet another indication that the prevailing political system in the region is in need of overhaul and being brought into modernity. There is a correlation between many of the woes facing Commonwealth Caribbean states and the political and constitutional construct imposed at independence.

It provides further food for thought, for reflection and for an approach requiring our political classes to stop playing petty, partisan politics with serious issues and instead to put constitutional reform, in a realistic way, on our front burners again.

Are they brave enough to do so?